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Last updated: Thu. May. 08, 2014 - 05:00 pm EDT

Teen’s letter enticed Earth Fare to install local grocery

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Nate Sutton was just looking out for his sister.

In the process, he played a major role in bringing Earth Fare, an organic- and natural-food chain, to Fort Wayne. The retailer celebrated its grand opening Wednesday in the Dupont Crossing shopping plaza at the site of the former Scott’s Food & Pharmacy.

Nate’s 11-year-old sister, Jordan, suffers from celiac disease, an autoimmune condition. People with the disorder can’t tolerate gluten. The protein causes the lining of the small intestine to become inflamed and damaged, which can eventually lead to abdominal distress, bloating, severe weight loss and malnutrition.

A classroom assignment at Nate’s school required students to compose a letter to a company. The teen chose to write Earth Fare and decided to go a step further and actually mail his letter because he knew Earth Fare carries a stockpile of gluten-free food.

“I was a little skeptical at first. I didn’t think I would hear back from anybody,” said Nate, 14, an eighth-grader at Maple Creek Middle School. “If anything, I thought I might get a letter thanking me for writing, but I didn’t really expect more than that.”

More did happen. Earth Fare, based in Fletcher, North Carolina, received Nate’s letter in March 2013 and was impressed.

“They first contacted my father because they thought someone older had written it,” he said.

Nate told Earth Fare officials that Parkview Health’s more than $500 million north-campus expansion at Dupont Road and Interstate 69 and related residential and commercial development made that area an ideal spot.

They agreed.

“We did have our eye on Fort Wayne but decided to revisit it later,” said Amanda Arnet, Earth Fare spokeswoman. “After we received (Nate’s) letter, it inspired us to go back. We would have eventually come to Fort Wayne, but Nate played a big part.”

Earth Fare spent at least $3 million in renovations at the former Scott’s store, 704 E. Dupont Road. Earth Fare will occupy about 22,000 square feet, said John Rogers, co-manager of the Rogers Companies, Earth Fare’s landlord. The company will employ 83 full- and part-time workers.

Earth Fare has 31 stores, primarily in the southeast part of the country. It has been expanding, however, into the Midwest, including locations in Noblesville, Carmel and Indianapolis.

A boom is underway in the health-food retail sector. Specialty food sales in the nation are at least $86 billion, according to the Specialty Food Association. Health-conscious shoppers seek foods free of hormones, high-fructose corn syrup and gluten.

“When we cook at home, we have things that are gluten-free,” Nate said. “Earth Fare has a lot of good things at their stores.”

His dad was amazed a growing business would take the time to listen to a teenager.

“They’re just a down-home, grass-roots company,” Bob Sutton said. “We’re very thankful.”

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